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While Mike, Nick and I were settling down at the lodge, the other half of the party suffered a casualty in the rough terrain of sheep country. John Schroeder, after shooting a ram, broke his leg and had to be flown to the hospital in Anchorage. As he was carried into the plane, he made brave promises of coming back to finish the hunt, but it seemed obvious to the rest of us that he was through for the season.
Now that early snow flurries were beginning to cover the mountaintops and make flying through the pass dangerous, it didn't look as though I'd get in any more sheep hunting. The remainder of our safari, therefore, centered around Ptarmigan Valley, a great expanse of tundra which separates the lodge from Rainy Pass, 20 miles away. This was an entirely different kind of hunting from what we had found in sheep country. Ptarmigan Valley is about six miles wide, rimmed on either side by snowcapped mountains. Years ago, in winter, the old dog-sled trail from Anchorage to Nome passed through the valley, and its impression can still be seen in the tundra. In summer the valley is a series of rolling hills and hummocks, surprisingly like the African plains in sweeping beauty. But walking in this valley is like walking on marsbmallows. We sank up to our ankles at every step and were lucky to make two miles in an hour.
The rain, which fell without letup for almost the whole time we hunted, made maneuvering even more difficult. It also brought out uncountable numbers of huge, hungry, biting insects.
In spite of these discomforts, however, the hunting in Ptarmigan Valley was terrific. Mornings we flew out 10 or 15 miles from the lodge to Halfway Lake (see map page 42) or to one of the other small ponds scattered across the valley. Most of them were just big enough to land the Taylor-craft or Piper, and take-offs were often pretty hair-raising. From there we would walk cross-country until we found a high spot where we could stop and look over the terrain.
There are few other places in the world where as much big game can be seen in a single day. On any afternoon, Dennis and I might count half a dozen black bears foraging in the blueberries, or spot a cow moose bathing in a swamp, or a grizzly browsing in a thicket. But the most numerous animals of all are Barren Ground caribou, and there are thousands of them in Ptarmigan Valley. In late August most of them are still in velvet, and the rich, dark brown of their antlers is a striking contrast to the brilliant white of their capes. They travel in herds over the tundra, prancing and high-stepping in such a smooth and graceful gait that it looks almost as though their antlers are floating above them.
In the first few days' hunting out of the lodge I looked over at least 300 caribou and didn't find one with a head I considered good enough to shoot. For a Putnam County, N.Y. deer-stalker, accustomed to hunting a whole season just to get a glimpse of a buck, this is an amazing experience. Often I could lure a whole herd within 30 yards of us just by waving a white handkerchief and snorting on an animal call.
At the end of the first week I held the uncontested title of chief animal caller, but I was also the only one who hadn't taken a trophy. Finally Mimi decided to do something about it. At breakfast on the seventh day she gave me a gold bracelet inscribed "This too shall pass" on one side and "Nothing is impossible" on the other. We had no sooner left the dining room when we spotted two dark specks on the side of nearby Round Mountain. Caribou on this mountain are rare, but there were two that morning and in the glasses they seemed better than any we had seen in the valley.
We headed for them on foot. By 11 we had worked to a point on the mountaintop above the caribou and started the stalk. When we got close, a series of hills and gullies obscured everything but their antlers. Neither was a record but both were superior. The larger of the two looked just right.
I crept downhill to within about 50 yards of where they were grazing, then stood up fast, sighted quickly on a patch of shoulder and fired. The animal vanished, then came loping over the top of another hillock. Just as I started to level my rifle at him again Dennis yelled, "Don't shoot. That's the other one." The second caribou, bewildered by the sudden loss of his companion, trotted in circles around the hill, stopping periodically to stare at us.
The skinning was finished by 2 in the afternoon. With what I could pack in a single trip, Dennis estimated he could get the rest of the animal down the mountain in two hauls. From there we could hike to the lodge and drive the tractor back to bring out the meat. He felt I'd be safer waiting for him on the mountain while he took the first load down. He left with instructions "to keep my rifle loaded and my eyes open." This was all I needed for a case of jitters.